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Google’s new rel types – what they are and what they mean

Anyone who has followed the Click Consult blog for a while will know how important we feel it is to ensure your site sends the right signals to search engines – and these new rel types will help your site communicate the value of your outbound links


Around two weeks ago, Google’s Webmaster Central Blog published a post from Gary Illyes and Danny Sullivan on the ‘evolution’ of the nofollow attribute. Beginning with a brief overview of nofollow (that it originated in 2005 and became the recommended method of flagging ad-related or sponsored content), the blog moved on to describe how ‘nofollow’ would be used from now on as well as introducing two new rel types.

The two new rel types can be used as of the date the blog was posted (10th of September 2019), while the move to using ‘nofollow’ as a hint will come on the 1st March 2020.

rel=”nofollow”

Not a great deal has changed around the actual use of the nofollow attribute, though the blog does make it the official attribute for when “you want to link to a page but don’t want to imply any type of endorsement, including passing along ranking credit to another page”.

The main change with regards the attribute is that the nofollow attribute won’t, necessarily, not be followed – instead, links marked with nofollow (from 01/03/2020) will be, as with the new attributes, treated as ‘hints’.

Additionally, sites which mark all links as nofollow as a rule may find the tag being ignored altogether if they fail to adhere to the new methodology.

rel=”sponsored”

The explanation of the ‘sponsored’ attribute is that it should be used in instances where the link was created as part of an advertisement, sponsorship or other compensated activity.

In effect, this means that webmasters should be indicating when links on their site are part of any exchange of value – for example, when news sites publish advertorials (content sponsored by brands), they will be expected to ensure that links within this article are giving the right signals to the search engine. The attribute states that the publisher is happy to endorse the link on the page, but that there has been a transaction involved in its placement.

rel=”ugc”

The ‘ugc’ here stands for user generated content and refers to anything added to a site by the site’s own users – such as forum posts and comments.

In the past, to combat one specific type of manipulative activity – forum spam, where links were placed in the comment section of blogs or in fora – many sites hosting this kind of UGC moved to implement the ‘nofollow’ attribute on all links posted in such a way.

This attribute is set to cater to exactly this kind of link – where a webmaster may either have limited or no control over the content posted and wants to indicate that to the search engine.

Why the change?

As referred to briefly in the intro, this change fits with the movement to increase the adoption of structured data. While the algorithms that Google uses to rank content on the web are getting smarter all the time, they are far from perfect and, as such, will need real world training to begin making the right inferences from the location and appearance of information types.

By encouraging webmasters to indicate the type of each link on their site, they are enabling themselves to train their algorithms to identify the message that a link is sending and, therefore, how much value each link should pass to the target site.

What does this mean for you?

The main message for most brands would be not to worry too much about these changes. Provided you are building your links effectively and ethically, the links you earn will remain useful. The important indication as to the future of link building, however, is that Google are taking further steps to determine authority and trustworthiness on the web and are expecting links to help in that endeavour.

For that reason, the search and digital marketing industry will need to continue to reduce its focus on the number of links earned and instead look to the relevance and quality of links earned as the true indication of a campaign’s success or failure. Attempt to earn links from sites with authority, and that mean something to your audience, that demonstrate expertise in their own right.

In addition, webmasters will need to look in to plug-ins or other methods for implementing the ‘ugc’ tags for comments and forum posts as soon as possible.


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